FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As it has been for three years, the worst part for the Atlanta Falcons is the wait.
Once the Falcons established they were a perennial playoff contender -- they've missed the playoffs only once since 2008 -- they had the confidence to work their way through the regular season trying to establish the best playoff seed. Twice, they've been the NFC's No. 1 seed, but it took until last season for the Falcons and Matt Ryan to win their first playoff game in the Ryan-Mike Smith era.
The Super Bowl is that carrot that motivates them. Ryan, who separated his left shoulder on the NFC Championship Game's final drive, remembers how close they were to the Super Bowl. The Falcons were one end-zone completion away from winning against the San Francisco 49ers. For a brief second, tight end Tony Gonzalez was open in the end zone, but Ryan couldn't deliver the completion.
With Gonzalez coming back from retirement and Steven Jackson added to the backfield, the Falcons feel good about making the playoffs. But in the meantime, they work and wait.
Here is what I learned at Falcons camp.
1. Camp position battles: The right side of the offensive line is up for grabs. The salary cap and Ryan's contract extension prevented the Falcons from keeping Tyson Clabo's $5.5 million-a-year contract at right tackle. They are trying to groom raw Lamar Holmes, a third-round pick in 2012, into that spot. Holmes has the bulk to fill the void, but he needs a lot of work. If that doesn't work out, the Falcons could use Mike Johnson, a third-round pick in 2010. Garrett Reynolds has a firmer grip on the right guard position than Holmes does at right tackle, but he can't slack off. The Falcons have a couple of young prospects who are interesting (Ryan Schraeder and Harland Gunn), but Reynolds should end up winning the job. The Falcons also have Joe Hawley as a top backup interior lineman. To get Gonzalez back, the Falcons gave him a lot of time off during the offseason and summer. That has given fourth-round pick Levine Toilolo and Chase Coffman ample opportunity to compete for the backup tight end role. On defense, Smith has to sort out whether to start Corey Peters or Peria Jerry at one of the defensive tackle spots. That has been an annual decision. Both, though, are expected to play. Not bringing back Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes creates some shuffling at cornerback. First-round pick Desmond Trufant will start on the other side of Asante Samuel. Robert McClain is the third corner. But the organization loves the upside of second-round pick Malliciah Goodman.
2. Loaded at the skill positions: Looking back, the Julio Jones trade looks to be the brilliant move that put the Falcons over the top on offense. The Falcons already had a No. 1 receiver (Roddy White). They had a decent slot receiver in Harry Douglas. Gonzalez is a future Hall of Famer at tight end. But Jones is a beast. As a rookie, Jones could catch short passes and muscle through defenders for yards. In his second year, he established his presence on deep passes. Now, he's complete. This offseason he has added muscle but is every bit as fast. White believes Ryan will use Jones even more as a deep threat. With this offense, the Falcons can pressure defenses in every part of the field with Jones perhaps being the biggest matchup problem.
3. The impact of Jackson will be huge late in games: It can be argued the Falcons were a second-half running back away from being in the Super Bowl. The problem became particularly noticeable late in the season and in the playoffs. Ryan and the offense would jump to leads, but Michael Turner didn't have enough left to get the rushing yards in the third and fourth quarters to eat up clock time and seal victories. Jackson still has that. Plus, having gone through so many losing seasons in St. Louis, Jackson has been itching to get on a winner. In a dual practice against the Cincinnati Bengals, Jackson showed his value. He's still powerful enough to blast behind a guard's block, bounce past the linebacker and be hard to pull down. Once, he didn't like a hit made by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict and got feisty, pushing and shoving. Turner worked nicely to give Ryan a running threat in the quarterback's early years, but he was clearly worn down by 2012. Jackson offers a back who can get fourth-quarter yards and catch the ball well out of the backfield.
4. Concern along the offensive line: The talented Bengals defensive line won the line of scrimmage battle Monday in the dual practice. That shouldn't be a surprise. The Bengals are loaded along the line. They have one of the game's best defensive tackles -- Geno Atkins -- along with at least three quality pass-rushers. One by one, Bengals linemen handled the Falcons blockers. It was a good test. The left side of the O-line is OK with Sam Baker and Justin Blalock, but they aren't a dominating tandem. Peter Konz should do well at center, but Reynolds and Holmes showed they still have a long way to go.
5. Learning curve at cornerback: First-round pick Trufant showed solid man-to-man skills going against the Bengals' talented group of receivers. How fast he matures will help determine the success or failure of the Falcons defense. Like most top teams trying to stay under the cap, the Falcons had to make tradeoffs. To keep their talented offense, the Falcons had to sacrifice defensive end John Abraham and cornerbacks Robinson and Grimes. If Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann and Mike Nolan's defensive schemes can pressure quarterbacks, Trufant won't be exposed too much. Down the line, though, the Falcons think second-round pick Robert Alford has more upside than any of their cornerbacks. At some point in the future, the Falcons believe they will have a great secondary featuring Trufant, Alford and Pro Bowl safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud.